The Mystery of Brand Names in Chinese Revealed

While it’s easy to pronounce brand names in your native tongue, have you ever tried to say them in their original creator’s language? French names tend to be challenging for English speakers, that is until they’ve tried to pronounce them in Chinese! Let this be your guide to finally be able to say the most popular retail brands in Chinese, properly.

While some of the brands sound very similar to their authentic counterpart in spoken Chinese others don’t even give you a clue as to what they are referencing. So let’s start with the familiar-sounding brands.

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It’s fairly easy to hear when someone is talking about the brand “耐克 (nài kè) Nike” since it sounds nearly identical. What makes it special is that Nike chose a very near phonetic match and a completely acceptable interpretation that is consistent with the brand’s identity. 耐克 (nài kè) means to “耐(nài) endure” and “克 (kè) overcome”. Not all brands were able to do this. Some sound similar but have no meaning behind the characters and the only purpose is to strictly sound similar.

The same goes for brands such as “亚马逊 (yà mǎ xùn) Amazon”, “索尼 (suǒ ní) Sony”, “沃尔玛 (wò ēr mǎ) Walmart”, 卡地亚 (kǎ dì yà) Cartier and “蒂芙尼 (dì fú ní) Tiffany”. If you listen they sound pretty close to how you are used to hearing them in conversation except the tones make them more distinguished, perhaps.

Here is a list of more brands that sound similar to the original.

迪奥 (dí ào) Dior

古驰 (gǔchí) Gucci

路易威登 (lù yì wēi dēng) Louis Vuitton

普拉达 (pǔ lā dá) Prada

特斯拉 (tè sī lā) Tesla

This leads us to the brands that sound nothing like the original and you’d have to know the character components to get a clue about their meaning. It’s like solving a puzzle!

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Tech companies such as “苹果 (píng guǒ) Apple” and “微软 (wēi ruǎn) Microsoft” don’t exactly sound similar but “苹果 (píng guǒ)” quite literally means apple, so if you think positively through the confusion, you can thank Chinese brand names for learning a little vocabulary without trying.

More brands that you may need to study in order to understand what they are referencing include:

麦当劳 (mài dāng láo) McDonald’s

星巴克 (xīng bā kè) Starbucks

百事 (bǎi shì) Pepsi

本田 (běn tián) Honda

丰田 (fēng tián) Toyota

Interestingly enough some brands fo through a lot of brainstorming to come to the perfect meaning behind the characters. Take “三脚马 (sān jiǎo mǎ) Ralph Lauren” for example. It is best known for its Polo Ralph Lauren sportswear line. In Chinese, “三脚马” (sān jiǎo mǎ), it means “horse with three legs”, naturally because the logo only appears to have 3 legs on it.

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The word “大众汽车 (dà zhòng qì chē) Volkswagen” means “People’s car” in German and in Chinese it translates to something similar as well. Literally, it would be ‘the public’s car’.

We have to credit the fizzy drink brand “可口可乐 (kě kǒu kě lè) Coca-Cola” which came up with the characters which essentially means “happy mouth”. It’s one of the first brands to do so well in the Chinese market due to its incredible branding. It not only sounds extremely close to the original, which is an accomplishment in and of itself when translating a business name to Chinese.

Burger King was able to use the literal translation of the name “汉堡王 ( hàn bǎo wáng) since “汉堡 (hàn bǎo)” is “burger” and “王 (wáng)” is “king“ in Chinese.

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The brand that deserves honorable mention is “宜家家居 (yí jiā jiā jū) IKEA”. Say that five times fast! It sounds adorable, to say the least and is one of the best instances of a foreign brand being localized into Chinese. For short it’s also been called “宜家 (yí jiā)” which translates to suitable for the home.

To get a better understanding as to why the brand names can sound so different or so similar according to the branding agencies and the public’s preferences, you must know the details of the language. Adding transliteration rules isn’t the only thing that goes into processing Chinese brands. In Mandarin Chinese, all Chinese characters are monosyllabic, meaning they are all spoken as a single syllable. In Mandarin, there are approximately 1,760 potential syllables—1,350 with tones and 410 without tones. There are, however, tens of thousands of Chinese characters, each with its own meaning. As a result, hundreds of distinct characters with various meanings might be spoken in the same way. As a consequence, because Romanization is focused on sound rather than meaning, brands written in various characters can be transliterated into the same Latin form. In other words, Chinese character names and Romanized variants have a one-to-many correspondence.

Now you should have a good sense of how the Chinese public likes to rename their favorite brands to give the product a more suitable feel. It also offers insight into how creative Chinese people get with the language is as well.

You May Want to Learn More :

“Superheroes You Have to Know About — in Chinese”
“Is There More Than One Type of Traditional Chinese Clothing?”
”Two Wonderfully Mythical Places from Chinese Folklore”
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